On April 8, 1975, Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in major league history. It took baseball 28 years to go from Jackie Robinson to Frank Robinson, and the minority hiring record in the 40 years since Robinson first managed the Cleveland Indians hasn't exactly been a glowing note of progress for baseball. In 2015, Lloyd McClendon of the Seattle Mariners is the only African-American manager and Fredi Gonzalez of the Atlanta Braves the only Latino manager.
Robinson was actually player-manager in 1975, although he'd end up playing only 49 games. Playing designated hitter and batting second on Opening Day, Robinson homered in the first inning as the Indians beat the Yankees 5-3. The Indians would finish a respectable 79-80 that year, although Opening Day was the only day they'd be over .500 all season. Maybe he should have played himself more; he hit .237/.385/.508 in 149 plate appearances, with 29 walks and 15 strikeouts.
Robinson ended up managing 16 years in the majors, with the Indians, San Francisco Giants, Baltimore Orioles and Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals). He was 70 when he last managed the Nationals in 2006 and unfortunately his tenure with that franchise is best remembered for the time he fell asleep during a game in 2004.
Was Robinson a good manager? He never reached the playoffs in his 16 seasons; only Jimmy Dykes managed more seasons without reaching the postseason. The Cleveland team he took over had gone 77-85 in 1974 and hadn't finished over .500 since 1968. Robinson got them to 81-78 in 1976 but was fired early in 1977 and the team got worse under Jeff Torborg.
The Giants hired Robinson in 1981. They'd had one winning season (1978) in seven years but they were over .500 his first two seasons before slipping and he was replaced midway through the '84 season.
In 1988, the Orioles started 0-6 under Cal Ripken Sr. before hiring Robinson. They would famously lose their next 15 in a row to start 0-21. That team finished 54-107 but the next year they went 89-73.
They entered the final weekend one game behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the AL East title and the teams had a three-game series in Toronto. The O's led 1-0 in the eighth, but the Blue Jays tied it on a two-out wild pitch and then won it in the 11th. The next day, the Jays scored three runs in the eighth to win 4-3, eliminating the Orioles from contention. It would be the last playoff race of Robinson's career.
He probably wasn't a great manager and seemed to wear out his welcome at the first sign of problems. Truth is, Robinson's teams never had the talent to win.
Anyway, it seems to me that Robinson's long career managing and serving in the commissioner's office has obscured his legacy as one of the great players of all time. You hear a lot more about Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente, his two right-field contemporaries, but Robinson was certainly their equal on many levels.
Robinson came up with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956, two years after Aaron's debut, and hit 38 home runs, which stood as the co-record for rookies until Mark McGwire hit 49 in 1987; it's still the second-most ever. Like Aaron, he was 20 years old as a rookie. Check out their career numbers through their age-33 seasons:
Robinson: .303/.394/.555, 450 HR, 88.1 WAR
Aaron: .316/.374/.565, 481 HR, 104.4 WAR
Aaron was a little better -- a little faster, better in the field, slightly more durable -- and never had an off season. But Robinson was his equal at the plate and even won two MVP awards to Aaron's one: In 1961, when the Reds won the NL pennant, he hit .323 with 37 home runs and 124 RBIs (he was even better the next year, hitting .342 with 39 home runs, 51 doubles, 136 RBIs and 134 runs); then again in 1966, when the Reds infamously traded him to the Orioles -- Reds GM Bill DeWitt said he was "an old 30" -- and he won the American League Triple Crown, batting .316 with 49 home runs and 122 RBIs. The Orioles swept the Dodgers in the World Series that year, then won again in 1970.
Robinson didn't age quite like Aaron -- nobody, with the exception of Barry Bonds, aged as well as Aaron -- so his career WAR lags behind Aaron's, 142.6 to 107.2. Still, that's higher than Clemente's 94.4. Clemente was a terrific and high-average hitter but didn't have the power of Robinson or Aaron. Robinson ranks 18th all time among position players in WAR and ninth among those who played primarily after World War II.
Robinson was known for his ferocious slides at second base. As the sportswriter Jim Murray once wrote, "He plays the game the way the great ones played it -- out of pure hate."
The Orioles of the '60s and early '70s will tell you Robinson was the key guy that turned a young team into a dynasty that won four AL pennants in six seasons. He's rightfully remember as a trail blazer, but don't forget what he did between the lines.